Despite the vast amount of existing diet information, many people still wonder what “healthy” eating is and how to make sure they are doing it properly. Much of the information out there is controversial and is usually serving the purpose of selling a new fad or products. It can get really overwhelming and confusing as to what to eat, or even what supplements to take. Basically how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The question I hear most often is what is a healthy balanced diet? Many wonder if they are getting too much of certain nutrients and not enough of others. To make things more complicated, most people aren’t sure of how supplements fit in and if they are necessary. When supplements are needed, which ones should you be taking?
Before answering these questions, it’s important to mention we are individuals, each with different requirements; our needs will vary based on our physical activity levels, what chronic conditions we may be suffering, our age and even gender among other things. So while this article is relative to most, it’s a generalization and may not necessarily apply to your individual needs.
Much of healthy eating is common sense; I think most experts would agree that processed, deep fried, refined foods are not healthy. Also, most people seem to be in agreement that we need protein, fats, complex carbohydrates, fibre, water, vitamins and minerals in our diet. Where experts seem to defer on is when it comes to proportions.
What is healthy eating? The more we eat foods in their whole form the better. Some really emphasize eating organic. Organic is a great way to go and there is indeed a vast difference. But it’s also overly expensive and not as readily available. Locally grown foods are also good. It’s best to balance your diet by consuming a large variety of complex carbohydrates which includes vegetables, fruits, dairy products, legumes as well as whole grains, even nuts and seeds. Obviously if someone is lactose intolerant, has celiac or any other food allergy/sensitivity, they would be avoiding these foods. Limiting or even avoiding less healthy sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and refined grain products is also important.
Fibre which is the part of plant-based foods that the body cannot digest and absorb is essential to a healthy diet. There are two basic forms of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre may help improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Avocado, Brussels sprouts, legumes and oats are a few examples. Insoluble fibre adds bulk to stool and can help prevent constipation. Vegetables, wheat bran and other whole grains are good sources of insoluble fibre.
Protein is another nutrient that needs to be part of a healthy diet. It’s necessary for growth and development and is a good source of energy. Both plant-based and animal-based foods provide protein. In my experience many people are lacking adequate amounts of protein in their diet. The WHO recommends 0.8 grams per kg of protein per day for the average adult who is sedentary. Those with active lifestyles or nursing moms may need more protein. It’s best to speak to a your Naturopathic Doctor or Nutritionist for specific protein requirements.
Good fats are also necessary in a healthy diet. Dietary fat is a nutrient that helps the body absorb essential vitamins, maintains the structure and function of cell membranes, and helps keep our immune system functioning. Unsaturated fats from healthier sources, such as lean poultry, fish and healthy oils, such as olive and nut oils are all part of a healthy diet. The human body can make most of the fats it needs from raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids, they are essential fats. Foods high in Omega-3 include cold water fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke. They may help control lupus, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Trans-fat occurs naturally in some foods, especially foods from animals. But most trans fat is created during food processing through partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. Trans-fat is found in some types of margarine, shortening, snack foods and commercial baked goods. Trans-fat can increase the risk of heart disease.
Avoid trans-fat as much as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fat, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats. Cut back on commercially prepared desserts and snacks, such as crackers, cookies, cakes and doughnuts.
Cholesterol is vital because it helps build your body’s cells and produces certain hormones. Dietary cholesterol comes from animal products, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, butter and other dairy products.
Keep dietary cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams a day. Cutting cholesterol to less than 200 milligrams a day can benefit anyone at high risk of heart disease. Reduce dietary cholesterol by cutting back on animal sources of food, such as beef, poultry and egg yolks. If an item is high in saturated fat, it’s probably also high in cholesterol.
Some sodium is vital because it helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body, helps transmit nerve impulses, and influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles. Too much sodium, though, can be harmful, increasing blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most Americans get far too much sodium in their daily diets and need to cut back.
Reduce sodium in your diet by limiting processed and prepared foods, which are often high in sodium. Also avoid salty condiments. Don’t add salt at the table and eliminate it from recipes when possible. Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams a day — or 1,500 milligrams if you’re age 51 or older, if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
The Mediterranean Diet
Of all the diets recommended today the Mediterranean diet seems to have the most research behind it, especially with respect to both prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Like most healthy diets, it includes fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and limited unhealthy fats. Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease and following a Mediterranean diet has been associated with a reduced risk of death not just from heart disease and cancer, it also reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Here are some of the key components of the Mediterranean diet:
- Plant-based foods primarily recommended such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Red meat is consumed no more than a few times a month
- Fish and poultry are consumed at least twice a week
- Butter is replaced with healthy fats, such as olive oil
- To flavour food, herbs and spices are used instead of high amounts of salt
- Moderate amounts of red wine are optional
The diet also recognizes the importance of physical activity as well as enjoying meals with family and friends.
According to Health Canada the following are nutrients which we over or under consume:
- 5 in 10 women and 7 in 10 men have energy intakes that exceed their energy needs.
- 25% of males and 23% of females, 19 years and older, have fat intakes above the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range.
- 32% of males and 21% of females, 19 years and older, have carbohydrate intakes below the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range.
- Many adults have inadequate intakes of magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D.
- For nutrients with an Adequate Intake (AI), there is concern that Canadian adults may not be meeting their needs for potassium and fibre – although the interpretation of the adequacy of nutrients with an AI is limited.
- Canadian adult sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of adverse health effects.
The following graph shows which nutrients we are deficient in:
* Vitamin D dietary intake data cannot stand alone and consideration must be given to serum 25OHD levels.
How to get your nutrients
We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, and vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision.
Fruits, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods contain nutrients that work together to keep us healthy. While supplements come close, we can’t get the same synergistic effect from them.
Calcium – Milk, yogurt, sardines, tofu, fortified orange juice
Folic Acid – Fortified cereal, spinach, lentils, beef liver
Iron – Oysters, chicken liver, turkey
Omega-3 fatty acids – Salmon, sardines, flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans
Vitamin A – Sweet potato, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, tomatoes
Vitamin B6 – Chickpeas, salmon, chicken breast
Vitamin B12 – Clams, beef liver, trout, fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin D – Salmon, tuna, yogurt, fortified milk
Vitamin E – Wheat germ oil, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter
Evidence does show that supplements can enhance health in different ways. The most popular nutrient supplements are multivitamins, calcium and vitamins B, C and D. Calcium supports bone health and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants—molecules that prevent cell damage and help to maintain health.
Women need iron during pregnancy especially and breastfed infants need vitamin D. Folic acid—400 micrograms daily, whether from supplements or fortified food, is important for all women of childbearing age.
Vitamin B12 keeps nerve and blood cells healthy. Since most of Vitamin B12 comes from meat, fish and dairy foods, vegans may want to consider taking a supplement to be sure they don’t become deficient.
Research suggests that fish oil can promote heart health. Of the supplements not derived from vitamins and minerals, fish oil is probably the one that has most scientific evidence to support its use.
For some people however, supplements may be a useful way to get nutrients they might otherwise be lacking. Having said that, in terms of which vitamins to take and how much it is best to speak to your naturopathic doctor or someone who specializes in this area.
I think the most important thing to remember is that supplements should not be a replacement for food. We get much greater nutrition from eating a whole food than we would just taking a supplement. Take kale as an example; it has nearly 3 grams of protein and 2.5 grams of fibre. It contains vitamins A, C and K. It also has folate, alpha linoleic acid, a form of omega 3 fatty acids. It also contains Lutein and zeaxanthin. These are the nutrients in kale that give it its deep, dark green colour and protects us against things like macular degeneration and cataracts. Minerals including phosphorus, potassium, calcium and zinc are also found in Kale.
If an individual is generally healthy and eats a very clean diet including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, that person may not need to take several different supplements. However, according to the Mayo clinic dietary guidelines recommend supplements or fortified foods in the following situations:
- Women who may become pregnant should get 400 micrograms a day of folic acid from fortified foods or supplements, in addition to eating foods that naturally contain folate.
- Women who are pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin that includes iron or a separate iron supplement.
- Adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12, such as fortified cereals, or take a multivitamin that contains B-12 or a separate B-12 supplement.
- Adults age 65 and older who do not live in assisted living or nursing homes should take a minimum of 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily to reduce the risk of injury related to falls.
Dietary supplements also may be appropriate if you:
- Don’t eat well or consume less than 1,600 calories a day.
- Are a vegan or a vegetarian who eats a limited variety of foods.
- Don’t obtain two to three servings of fish a week. If you have difficulty achieving this amount, some experts recommend adding a fish oil supplement to your daily regimen.
- Are a woman who experiences heavy bleeding during your menstrual period.
- Have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs or uses nutrients such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas.
- Have had surgery on your digestive tract and are not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly.
Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor about which supplements and what doses might be appropriate for you. Be sure to ask about possible side effects, allergies and interactions with any medications you take.
The Gluten Fad
There’s a fad going on now that gluten is bad and all gluten containing grains need to be avoided. As a result, many people are adhering to a gluten free diet by buying refined processed foods that are gluten-free, thinking that they’re doing a good thing and being healthy. If someone doesn’t have gluten sensitivity eating a gluten containing grain like barley, which is a whole grain, isn’t necessarily an unhealthy option. It’s best to eat whole foods as close as to how they are found in nature and it is also a good idea to consume a large variety of foods and try new vegetables and fruits and grains and seeds that you may not have tried before.
In conclusion, it is best to adopt moderation in what we eat. Question is, what does “moderation” really mean? Moderation for one may be indulgence for another. I read a Hindu proverb that said: “Even nectar is poison if taken to excess”. Keeping this in mind, it’s best to vary ones diet every day and not eat the same foods over and over again. For refined foods, it’s best not to consume them daily or frequently and only as a treat once is a while.
“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.” –Epicurus
Complete deprivation isn’t a good idea as it can lead to strong cravings which lead to over indulgence. Let’s face it, living a healthy life means occasionally indulging in our cravings, but if you are going to indulge, make sure you get the best of whatever it is that you want and enjoy every bite!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Moderation in all things, especially moderation”
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- The Mayo clinic
- Harvard school of Public Health